I’ve been a fan of Brené Brown since I first saw her TED talk The Power of Vulnerability. Brené is a research professor and storyteller with a background in social work. Her research and writing mostly focuses on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. I recently read her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. I would really recommend it, especially to anyone who was currently having or considering counselling.
Often what brings you to the point of looking for a counsellor is an experience that has left you feeling vulnerable or shaken your sense of who you are. (And I’m aware how the search for a counsellor and making that first contact can also bring up feelings of vulnerability.)
Brené defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”. This sounds like something most of us would usually do our best to avoid! However she also says that vulnerability “sounds like truth and feels like courage”. This dispels the myth that vulnerability has anything to do with weakness. Beyond that, it acknowledges what a brave move it is to push yourself to do things that make you feel vulnerable.
Shame and Resilience
Vulnerability is closely linked to shame, another uncomfortable feeling. But what exactly is shame? Brené defines it as “the fear of disconnection – it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong”. It is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging”.
In her Ted talk, Brené explains how every human being with the capacity for empathy experiences shame, and no one wants to talk about it. But the less you talk about shame, the more you feel it. In Daring Greatly, she draws on twelve years of social research exploring people’s homes, relationships, work and parenting to develop the concept of shame resilience. Shame resilience is “the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion and connection than we had going into it”.
So how do we get to that place of being able to stay true to ourselves and our values? And do so despite the shame we all feel at times? Well, it helps to know yourself and your values as much as possible. (The self-exploration of therapy can really help with that.) But essentially finding the courage to be vulnerable, or developing shame resilience, is about connection. Brené explains how “A social wound needs a social balm, and empathy is that balm”.
Empathy is “simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone'”. This is exactly what a good counsellor will do for you. He or she will earn your trust so you feel able to share and explore your feelings and experiences.
Perhaps you are considering counselling because of a difficult relationship with a family member, friend or partner. Brené says that “If we’re going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light”. When we’re in conflict with the people we care about it can be really difficult to access that vulnerability and courage. This is where a neutral third party can really help you make sense of your own feelings and needs. Then you can communicate them to others more effectively.
Overcoming Your Difficulties
Daring Greatly goes into the ways we try to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable, such as
- foreboding joy (do you find yourself thinking of the absolute worst that might happen whenever something good happens?)
- perfectionism (trying to do everything perfectly in the hope you’ll never feel any shame)
- numbing (eating, drinking or whatever works for you to deaden the pain)
Brené then explains how you can overcome these difficulties by
- practising gratitude
- treating yourself with kindness and compassion
- getting in touch with your feelings
One reason I would recommend this book is because of how helpful it can be to create those habits that Brené recommends. Sometimes, though, the feelings are just overwhelming and you might feel like you need more support. In that case counselling can really help. In fact, Brené’s chapter on how to take off the vulnerability armoury reads like a wonderful description of what many of us have learned for ourselves in therapy.
There is so much to recommend this book. The sections on the differences in how women and men experience shame are eye-opening. There is a thought-provoking chapter on how we can rehumanise schools, colleges and workplaces. Finally, parents will get a lot from the chapter on the secret to raising your children to be the adults you want them to be. (Spoiler: it is to be that adult yourself.)
Brené’s conversational style makes Daring Greatly a really enjoyable read. Whether you are in therapy or not, if you are looking to deepen your connections and live more fully, I would highly recommend this book.